There has never been a dearth of controversy over selling and consuming horse meat. But now we’ve got Interpol investigating criminal mobs from Italy, Russia, Romania, Poland and other countries for the sale of the high–profit, tender meat.
“When selling any food product, there is always money to be made if rules and laws are skirted, and that’s what we see happening with horse meat,” a consumer investigator for the European Union told The Food Watchdog last week.
She explained that consumer fraud involving horse meat usually centers on two scams. The first is selling meat knowingly tainted with heavily-used equine drugs that are banned for human consumption. The second is selling horse meat labeled as beef or some other meat that can bring a higher price.
It is the latter example that European food safety agencies are investigating, tracking the source of hundreds of thousands of frozen meat products including beef lasagna, moussaka, spaghetti bolognese and others. DNA testing over the past six weeks of the “beef lasagnas” made by the French supplier Findus has shown that horse meat was used in between 60 percent and 100 percent of the samples tested, the British food safety authority said.
Investigators have expressed amazement at the convoluted path the mislabeled products took and claim it’s a sign of mob involvement.
According to published reports, Benoît Hamon, France’s consumer affairs minister, said last week that Findus “acquired the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader, which had subcontracted the order to a trader in the Netherlands. The latter was supplied from (A slaughterhouse) and butcher located in Romania.”
Interpol refused to confirm any details of its investigation as did the EU’s food safety authority. .
It is estimated that about 5 million horses are slaughtered for food each year. The mislabeling of horse meat is not unique in many countries.
In January, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland recalled an estimated 200 million low-cost beef burgers from several grocery chains after DNA testing found levels of horse meat as high as 34 percent, with no mention of the equine meat on the burgers’ labels.
Many countries, including the U.S., require an Equine Information Document (EID) that certifies that the horse meat being offered for human consumption is drug free.
If veterinary drugs are present, the horse meat is usually sold at a much lower price and usually only for pet food or for zoo animals. It is often this tainted, low-cost meat that is being mislabeled and used as beef.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned two heavily used animal drugs from any meat sold for human consumption. One is the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone or bute. The other is clenbuterol, which was designed as a bronchodilator for asthma patients.
Clenbuterol also turned out to be a performance-enhancing drug which, over the years, resulted in scores of competitive athletes, including professional ball players, being tossed out of the Olympics, the Tour de France, World Cup and other competitions. The medication, called a “risk to the public health” by the FDA, has been banned by the agency as a carcinogen.
A spokesman for Food Safety Inspection Service told The Food Watchdog last week that her agency doesn’t test for horse DNA. But sometimes USDA and FDA are forced to get involved. This FDA warning letter sent to an Ohio horse seller last year resulted from tests on horse meat conducted by Canadian food safety authorities.
The last of the three U.S. equine slaughterhouses closed six years ago.
Although it is occasionally offered in some high-end French eateries, horse meat has rarely been a popular menu item in the U.S. Perhaps domestic diners are hung up on the idea of eating Native Dancer, Black Beauty or Mr. Ed, but little horse meat is sold here.
Lobbyists for and against the slaughter of horses, especially the wild herds racing picturesquely on Department of the Interior lands, have long been active on Capitol Hill.
Right around Thanksgiving, President Obama signed a bill that effectively restored the U.S. horse slaughter industry, which had withered after Congress took away the funding for inspectors to monitor operations at plants that butchered horses. Without government inspections, the meat could not be legally sold, which drove slaughter operations to Canada and Mexico.
When the domestic plants reopen, it’s estimated that in the U.S. alone, as many as 200,000 horses a year could be slaughtered for human consumption.
I’m waiting to hear from the FSIS as to whether it will begin doing DNA testing on meat beef products when the horse slaughtering begins again in the U.S. in earnest.